Wisdom is Made By Walking: a book review

I like a good pilgrimage. I’ve read books on it and have friends who have gone a sojourning.   But despite my interest, I have never gone on such a pilgrimage, outside of a couple of backpacking trips in the mountains.

9780819233493In Wisdom Walking: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life, Gil Stafford weaves together a story of a pilgrimage across Ireland coast-to-coast along the Wicklow Way. Stafford was a guide for a group of singing pilgrims, the Vox Peregrini. He weaves together his experience of walking, his own life journey from Conservative Southern Baptist College president to Episcopal priest-spiritual-wanderer, his family of origin, insights of Carl Jung’s depth psychology and alchemy as an archetype for spiritual transformation. Stafford writes, “To be on pilgrimage is to embrace the mission of a personal renaissance, to claim the inner beauty, the haunting, the frightening, the hated, the adored, the soft, the cruel, the humorous, the damaged, the hilarious, the pitiful—every sliver of conscious and unconscious—and a claim our self as our own who we are who we are becoming transformed into” (28).

Stafford invites us to this sort of journey toward spiritual transformation.  Chapters 1 through 4. Chapter 1 is about preparation and how the pilgrimage begins before we begin our walking, Chapter 2 describes the movement from the exuberant beginning of a pilgrimage to the ‘mundane ways of walking’ as the issues we carry come with us on our journey(18). Chapter 3 explores the experience of the pilgrim community, and how after 3 or 4 days of walking our defenses are down and we are vulnerable. Chapter four discusses the pilgrim at their most fragile when they feel like quitting (and this is the moment where spiritual transformation can happen).

These four chapters are broken up with ‘Interludes’—suggestions for equipment and physical, mental, and spiritual preparation of pilgrimage;  Ahmad, imam at the Islamic Cultural Center in Tempe, Arizona relates the story of his pilgrimage to Mecca; Crystal, (Stafford’s wife’s friend from high school), describes her Pilgrimage in Nepal; Greg’s transgendered pilgrimage as he journeyed toward becoming a transgendered woman (now Gwen).

In chapter 5, Stafford relates the story of his sister Dinah and his family’s pilgrimage with her as she lives with Prader-Willi Syndrome. Chapter 6 explores the experience of life, post-pilgrimage (Stafford describes this as a cross between a lovely afterglow and a bad-hangover), and the continuing journey of inner transformation.

Through the lens of Jungian psychology, Stafford’s description of pilgrimage focuses on this inner work of pilgrimage. The outer journey—tiredness and blisters, hunger and thirst and mundane walking, gives a context for a similar inner pilgrimage of transformation. Alchemy and the transmutation of base elements to gold become a poignant metaphor for the type of spiritual transformation envisioned by the pilgrim way. Stafford notes also, as a repeat pilgrim, that the inner process starts over with each pilgrimage because the process is cyclical. Though like a spiral staircase, we begin each journey upward at the same coordinates but with a new vantage point.

This was an enjoyable read. Stafford is a priest and a Christian and writes from a perspective of faith; however because the focus is on spiritual transformation, archetypes and inner work in a Jungian key, much of the insights that he explores here, are broadly applicable to anyone on a spiritual journey. You don’t actually have to go to Ireland (or wherever) to go on this sort of pilgrimage. I give this four stars -★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book from the Publisher or Author via SpeakEasy in exchange for my meandering review.

P is for Purgation (an alphabet for penitents)

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

-Ephesians 4:22-24

Purgation is never far from Lenten spirituality. The discipline of fasting, and of chastened habits helps us to cast aside the things that hinder us and attend to the stuff that matters. The purgative way is integral to true spirituality. We will not grasp for God with our hands full. There has to be some letting go.

The Christian Mystical tradition places purgation as an early stage of the spiritual life. The mystics name these stages: Purgation, Illumination, Union. There is a purgative stage of stripping off the old self—patterns of behavior, false beliefs, self-centeredness and petty idolatries. Then the ground is paved for deeper spiritual insight and experience (illumination). The illuminative stage likewise involves a letting go of self, but the primary energy is directed at training one’s attention on God. In the final stage, the soul is stripped of self and united with the Divine (union).

These stages roughly describe the shape of spiritual maturity. Purgation is for beginners, Illumination is the promise of those on the way, Union is our telos. However, the spiritual life, like other aspects of life does not always follow a straight ascent. Purgation-Illumination-Union is the cycle of Christian Spirituality: we let go, we attend, we commune.

If that is a little abstract, don’t worry about it. The point is that spiritual progress involves a purge of our old life as we make room for something new. The Apostle Paul instructed the Ephesians to “put off their old self, which was corrupted by its deceitful desires.” For converts in the Ancient world, this meant letting go of religious ideas and the ubiquitous pagan idolatry and learning to locate their lives within YHWH’s story and the redemption Christ brings. It also meant for them, as for us, disciplining passions and desires—the drive for success, greed, covetousness, lust, pride—and seek to follow Jesus wholeheartedly.

The mystics are right that purgation is felt most acutely by those who are beginners in the spiritual journey. It involves a radical reorienting of our thoughts, hopes, and actions. This is conversion. But the purgative way isn’t just the purview of beginners. Wherever you are in your spiritual life, there are things you need to purge: attachments to people, faulty understanding, false beliefs about yourself, harmful habits, past hurts, unforgiveness and bitterness, shame. We will not grasp God with our hands full. There has to be some letting go.

The God Walker: a book review

What happens when a Christian publisher with charismatic, evangelical, Anglican roots embarks on a Catholic pilgrimage? Tony Collins (of Monarch Books and Lion Hudson) took a month and two days to walk from St. Jean Pied-de-Port to the west coast of Spain, the city of Santiago de Compostela.  The Camino de Santiago is four-hundred-and-ninety mile journey across the hills of Northern Spain. In Taking My God for a Walk, Collins recounts the journey—sharing his reflections on pilgrimage and the people and places he met along the way.

walkingThe book provides a chronology of Collins’s pilgrimage, each chapter, a journal entry of a days or two’s walk, recounting the sights, sensations and encounters. He relays the hardness of the path, his conversations with fellow pilgrims and the way made by walking. This is a travelogue describing Collins three-fold journey: a journey of cultural discovery of the sights, tastes and culture of Northern Spain, a historic journey into the politics and demographics of the region, and spiritual journey undertook to seek ‘sources of reverence'(17-18). He meets God on the pilgrim road and is profoundly impacted by this journey.

I was interested in this book because the pastor of the church I am attending, recently came back from the Camino and came back with fascinating stories about her journey (which made their way into many sermon illustrations). Collins walked the same path. He weaves his theological musings with descriptions of towns and countryside, and particular interest in the friends forged along the way. 

I enjoyed reading about Collins reflections on life and faith, his embarrassment (early on) of the impropriety of having a traveling companion called his ‘girlfriend,’ the ways he braved boredom and bed bugs as he sought out the gifts of the journey. I enjoyed the book without necessarily finding it a compelling read. I found I could only read it in fits and starts. I don’t think this Collins fault. He is a good writer, witty, observant,insightful. But pilgrimage unfolds circumspectly. He walks the way of St. James and meets God in the walking and at the culmination of his journey. I give this book three and a half stars.

Note: I received this book from Kregel Publications in exchange for my honest review. Monarch Books is an imprint of Lion Hudson and is distributed by Kregel in the United States.